Packed ICUs, Crowded Crematoria: COVID Crises in Chinese Cities


BAZHOU, China — Yao Ruyan walked frantically outside the fever clinic of a county hospital in China’s industrial Hebei province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Beijing. Her mother-in-law had covid and needed urgent medical attention, but all the hospitals nearby were full.

“They say there are no beds here,” she barked into her phone.

As China grapples with its first-ever national wave of Covid-19, emergency rooms in small towns and cities southwest of Beijing are overwhelmed. Intensive care units turn away ambulances, relatives of the sick look for open beds and patients collapse on benches in hospital corridors and lie on the floor for lack of beds.

Yao’s elderly mother-in-law had fallen ill a week ago. They first went to a local hospital, where lung scans showed signs of pneumonia. But the hospital could not handle Covid cases, Yao was told. She was told to go to a hospital in a neighboring county.

As Yao and her husband drove from hospital to hospital, they found that all the wards were full. Zhuozhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s hometown, was the latest disappointment.

“I’m furious,” Yao said, tearing up as she grabbed the lung scans from the local hospital. “I don’t have much hope. We’ve been out for a long time and I’m terrified because she’s having trouble breathing.”

Over two days, AP journalists visited five hospitals and two crematoria in cities and towns in Baoding and Langfang prefectures, in central Hebei province. The area was the epicenter of one of China’s first outbreaks after the state eased Covid controls in November and December. For weeks, the region fell silent, as people fell ill and stayed home.

Many have now recovered. Today, markets are bustling, diners pack restaurants and cars honk in snarling traffic, even as the virus spreads to other parts of China. In recent days, state media headlines have said the area is “beginning to resume normal life.”

But life in central Hebei’s emergency rooms and crematoria is anything but normal. Even as the young go back to work and the lines at fever clinics shrink, many of Hebei’s elderly are in critical condition. It may be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of China.

The Chinese government has reported just seven deaths from COVID since restrictions were dramatically loosened on Dec. 7, bringing the country’s total toll to 5,241. On Tuesday, a Chinese health official said China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll.

Experts have predicted between one million and two million deaths in China next year, and the World Health Organization warned that Beijing’s method of counting would “underestimate the true death toll.”

In Baoding Hospital No. 2 in Zhuozhou on Wednesday, patients crowded the corridor of the emergency department. The patients breathed with the help of respirators. A woman cried after doctors told her a loved one had died.

At the Zhuozhou crematorium, ovens are burning overtime as workers struggle to cope with a surge in deaths over the past week, according to an employee. A funeral shop worker estimated that it burns 20 to 30 bodies a day, up from three to four before the covid measures were loosened.

“There have been so many people who have died,” said Zhao Yongsheng, a worker at a funeral shop near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they cannot burn them all.”

Over two hours at the Gaobeidian crematorium on Thursday, AP reporters observed three ambulances and two vans unloading bodies.

“It’s been a lot!” a worker said when asked about the number of covid-related deaths, before funeral director Ma Xiaowei stepped in and took the journalists to meet a local government official.

When the official listened in, Ma confirmed there were more cremations, but said he did not know if covid was involved. He blamed the extra deaths on the arrival of winter.

But while anecdotal evidence and modeling suggest large numbers of people are becoming infected and dying, some Hebei officials deny the virus has had much of an impact.

“There is no so-called explosion in cases, everything is under control,” said Wang Ping, administrative director of Gaobeidian Hospital, at the hospital’s main gate.

Wang said only one-sixth of the hospital’s 600 beds were occupied, but refused to allow AP reporters to enter. Two ambulances arrived at the hospital during the half hour AP reporters were present, and one patient’s relative told the AP they were turned away from Gaobeidian’s emergency room because it was full.

In Bazhou, a city 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Gaobeidian, a hundred or more people packed the emergency room at Langfang No. 4 People’s Hospital on Thursday night.

The guards worked to contain the crowds as people jostled for positions. With no room in the ward, patients spilled out into hallways and corridors. Sick people sprawled on blankets on the floor while staff frantically operated stretchers and ventilators. In one corridor, half a dozen patients on metal benches wheezed as oxygen tanks pumped air into their noses.

For two hours, AP reporters witnessed half a dozen or more ambulances pull up to the hospital’s intensive care unit, loading critical patients to rush to other hospitals, even as cars pulled up with dozens of new patients.

A beige van pulled up to the intensive care unit and frantically honked its horn at a waiting ambulance. “Move!” shouted the driver.

“Come on come on!” cried a panicked voice. Five people lifted a man wrapped in blankets from the back of the van and rushed him to the hospital.

The guard asked a patient to move, but backed off when a relative growled at him. The bundled man was instead laid on the floor, amidst medics running back and forth.

Medical personnel rushed over a ventilator. “Can you open his mouth?” someone shouted.

When white plastic tubes were placed on his face, the man began to breathe easier.

Others were not so lucky. Relatives surrounding another bed began to tear up as an elderly woman’s vitals flattened. A man pulled a cloth over the woman’s face and they stood in silence before her body was rolled away. Within minutes another patient had taken her place.

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